Taylor Swift illustrates age-based power dynamics in ‘All Too Well: The Short Film’

Grace Pearson-Thompson, Arcade Editor

Taylor Swift’s iconic red scarf from “All Too Well” (Maggie Pasterz)

When Taylor Swift released her version of her 2012 album, “Red,” this past November it was expected to take the world by storm. What was less expected was the realization that hit thousands of listeners after viewing “All Too Well: The Short Film,” complete with the 10-minute version of the song. 

In the words of a friend and new Taylor Swift fan: “oh s—. I think I got manipulated.” 

Using Taylor’s own words from the short film’s premiere in Manhattan, the song “started out as a song on the album, just a simple track five,” but listeners “went and turned it into what it is now.”

While the shortened version of “All Too Well” is already deeply impactful, Swift excluded lyrics that explicitly addressed the age difference and subsequent power imbalance in her relationship. Upon the release of the 10-minute version, lyrics referencing the above were finally included. Swift writes, “you kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath,” implying her partner’s use of manipulation and isolation. She continues: “you said if we had been closer in age, maybe it would have been fine, and that made me want to die.” 

Using perhaps the most impactful lyric to ever address a power imbalance fueled by an age gap, Swift sings, “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age.” 

The iconic and titular line of the song, “I remember it all too well,” is one thing. In the extended version, a variation of that line is repeated seventeen times. “You were there” is stated twice. “I was there” a whopping 31. The aftermath of being gaslit is such treacherous territory: feeling sanity slip away as you filter through what you know to be truth. To counteract the confusion that comes with experiencing gaslighting, Swift repeats that she remembers it and she was there. 

Listening to the song for the first time at 1 a.m. on its release day,  I felt a sinking, nauseating disturbance in my chest. All I could do was say “oh my god” and sit on my rug, paralyzed in numbness. 

Premiering on Nov. 12 alongside the album, Taylor Swift wrote and directed “All Too Well: The Short Film.” The song was allegedly written about a partner 10 years Swift’s senior, and the short film depicts the toxic power dynamics that can result from an age gap in a young relationship. 

I sat speechless on FaceTime with a friend as we watched Swift’s directorial debut. As soon as the credits rolled, we hung up having realized that we both went through something far worse than we originally thought. 

The film opens with the joy characteristic of any honeymoon stage. It’s the perfect time for enough of a power balance to form and allow for toxicity to permeate — what appears to Swift as a secure relationship. Sweet glances and piggyback rides covered the scratched screen of my laptop, but the pit in my stomach anticipated a turn. It came paired with the words “the first crack in the glass” splayed across the screen. 

Though charming and charismatic at their dinner party, Dylan O’Brien’s character, “Him,” rejects any public affection from Sadie Sink’s character, “Her.” O’Brien reveals the darker sides of his character, complete with aggression, yelling and cold stares, forcing Sink into a position of appeasement. O’Brien breaks the silence to call Sink’s behavior “ridiculous.” 

Sink cites no problems with their company, but rightfully “didn’t like the way that [he] acted around them.” As Sink describes the cold-shouldered perspective of her evening, O’Brien responds with retorts like “that’s such bullshit” and “you’re making this about you.” 

He begins a pathetic monologue: “holy s–-. I don’t think I’m making you feel that way. I think you’re making yourself feel that way. Literally a moment that I don’t even f–—- remember that you’re, like, f–—-, like, holding me hostage over. It’s insane. It’s f–—- crazy … now this is the night. Now we’re doing this. Awesome.” 

Only after Sink starts crying over the kitchen counter does O’Brien soften in tone but not in intention. He repeats to her, “c’mon. I don’t wanna fight. I’m sorry.” After a familiarly insincere apology, the argument ends in resigned laughter and red cheeks. I know the look in Sink’s eyes while her head is pressed into O’Brien’s shoulder in an embrace: it’s the first wound too big for a Band-Aid, but you can’t seem to rip it off. 

Until he rips it off for her with the force of a thousand kitchen fights, and she’s left with the sting of a thousand unanswered questions. 

After their breakup, which Swift calls “the reeling,” Sink sits frozen in contemplation, drowning in muted earth tones that defeat her once vibrant world. She fights tears, biting her fingernails, wishing she could forget the brief sparks of magic. 

The comments section on the short film’s page on YouTube is filled with recollections of viewers’ experiences with toxic relationships. One user said, “I’m free but I remember it all too well.” Another credits the short film for realizing the toxicity of their own relationship: “I know I want to leave, but I am scared for some reason. Like I’m being controlled and in chains somehow.” 

One viewer summarizes it perfectly: “in cases like these where the age gap is so significant, it feels like someone ripped you of your innocence for themselves— it’s like how they get their kick of nostalgia.”

In a relationship like the one depicted in Swift’s song and short film, the upper hand can be a threatening one. An imbalance of power in this context can mean coercion fueled by emotional abuse, like saying “if you really were in love with me, then you would want to.” It can also lead to social isolation. This is advantageous to older partners: society finds it easier to paint younger people as irrational and impulsive, villainizing them instead of the sometimes manipulative actions of older partners. 

Age is an indicator of power in society, making it a predictor of power in any relationship. We have each experienced the lack of power that comes with childhood. We cover new territory as we navigate young adulthood, namely in friendships, partnerships and intimacy. Being older than a partner automatically assigns an upper and lower hand. 

It’s easier to see younger people as naïve, putting older partners in a position of guidance that can easily turn into manipulation — ‘teaching’ that can devolve into pressure, for example. Older partners are also more likely to have broad social networks and stable finances. This imbalance in power is the perfect breeding ground for toxic relationships and instances of abuse. 

Yes, it’s legal. Yes, I’m familiar with Romeo and Juliet laws. But I have an unresolvable queasiness on this topic. 

Once we turn 18, concern with age in sexual contexts dwindles — I have heard fellow Tulane students say things like “if she’s 18, you’re in the green” at The Boot Bar and Grill and TJ Quill’s. Being college students, and even just participants in nightlife, we’re automatically exposed to relationships with older partners. There’s an existing predatory culture at Tulane that encourages older members of the community to prey upon younger ones. 

There’s another pattern here: I, along with countless others who date men, have been pressured to gravitate towards older men on the basis that they’ll be more mature. Collectively, we err towards the belief that people socialized as women have more emotional intelligence and maturity; in reality, girls and young women are penalized for the same behaviors that boys and young men are encouraged to perform. Young women are then praised for their supposed poise and maturity, but this leaves them vulnerable to unknowingly building trust with a predator. 

When Taylor Swift wrote “All Too Well” at 21, we knew her as the teen country superstar she was. I know the feeling intimately: being frozen trying to grow from the little girl I was but feeling stuck because I was valued for my innocence, my mousiness and how little space I allowed myself to occupy. 

We’re all bitterly acquainted with the identity growth that occurs from the ages of 18 to 24. Very little of this era of life is stable, according to research. Young adults experience drastic amounts of change in what roles they play. For an older partner in a relationship — someone who’d progressed through these changes and reached some stability — to take advantage of the insecurity and uncertainty is cruel. 

Every element of the song and short film is so intricately crafted but so nauseatingly relatable. It was Taylor Swift’s songwriting, performance and direction that resulted in a collective awakening of listeners worldwide, learning that they had experienced the same abuse that Swift did but lacked the words to describe it. Labeling something like this is validating but sickening. Empowering but embarrassing. Strengthening but so, so weakening. 

At 12, I memorized “All Too Well” when it was first released. From 15 to nearly 18, I was groomed, manipulated and abused. Now, I’m 21, missing my own metaphorical scarf: a part of me that he kept, because it “reminds [him] of innocence, and it smells like me.” 

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